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The Empress Catherine permitted the settlers on the lower Volga to choose their own form of government, only demanding of them that they submit to the prevailing form of civil law. Their choice was a kind of communal government, each colony being ruled by a Mayor (Vorsteher), assisted by two or four Councilmen (Beisitzer) and a Secretary (Schreiber). The legislative body consisted of all the heads of families.
Since 1798, however, several colonies formed a circuit, the highest official of which was called the Obervorsteher. The Obervorstehers in turn were subject to the Comptoir in Saratov. The Comptoir was established March 17, 1766, and was made up of an Oberrichter (Supreme judge) and two Mitglieder (Members), a Secretary, a Bookkeeper, a Translator, two Physicians and a Surveyor, all of whom were subject to the Protective Chancery (Tutel-Kanzlei) in St. Petersburg.
To some extent the immigrants to Ellis County introduced these institutions in their new homes. Thus, from April till the fall of 1876, Herzog had its Vorsteher, Town Crier (Buettel), and Gemeinde versammlung (Legislative Body), and originally, homesteads were sought with a view to distribution by lot as was customary in Russia. But when it was discovered that such a local government body possessed no authority in the United States, it fell into discard, and the settlers submitted their differences to the properly constituted authorities for settlement.
The communal life, however, remained, for when settling in America the first thought of the newcomers was to find land suitable for farming, and in quantities large enough to permit the founding of colonies. Unlike in Russia, these colonies were united by no legal bond. Rather, a degree of rivalry existed between them which only the passing years have mollified. The communistic character of the settlements has served to unite the inhabitants more closely in social life and, especially in the early years, each village resembled one large family. Living as they did, secluded from practically all outside influence, the colonies gradually underwent a rather slow but healthy development, which permitted the settlers to retain the good they inherited, and at the same time adopt the advantages of their new country. On the other hand, this seclusion retarded the development of public spirit with the result that at the present day the villages, with the exception of Victoria, are still under township law. Of late years, however, a marked change has been brought about in this regard, and the future is bright with promise.
When they arrived in Ellis County the immigrants were for the most part very poor, having exhausted all their resources on their long journey. The families who came with any considerable sum of money were the exceptions. If in the course of time they bettered their condition, it is due solely to their industry, economy and perseverance in the face of trying difficulties. In 1876 Ellis County was still practically all a vast unbroken prairie. At Victoria, the newcomers found the present railroad station and one other house, with the ranch of an Englishman set down here and there in the vast territory. Near Munjor there was also a dwelling.
Picture: Sod house, typical home of early settlers
To construct some kind of shelter for themselves on their newly acquired land first demanded the attention of the immigrants. In some instances, the first dwellings were rude board tents, which were replaced, as the season advanced, by sod houses or dugouts. Generally, however, the sod houses were built at once. Only a few of the settlers could enjoy the luxury of a two or three-room frame house in the early days. Later, though, as prosperity increased, houses of stone, which required labor rather than money, and of lumber, which required money, took the place of the dugout throughout the colonies. It may not be out of place here to give a brief description of the early sod house.
The walls were built of sod cut from the prairie. Trees and saplings gathered on the creek banks formed the rafters and supports for the roof which was made of plain boards covered with a layer of dirt several inches thick, firmly packed. The interior of the house usually contained two rooms - a small anteroom containing the fire-place and the cooking utensils, and a larger one which served as living, dining, and bed room. In some cases the larger room had a wooden floor, though more often the bare earth had to serve this purpose.
The larger room contained the stove, which was used for baking and heating. This was of home construction, being built of sunbaked brick made of soil mixed with a goodly portion of straw. The stove was so constructed that almost anything combustible could be used as fuel. Straw, sunflowers and wood were used, and in the absence of these, "mist-holz" had to serve the purpose. This latter fuel was made by letting the accumulated manure of the barnyard heat and decompose to a certain degree, then spreading it out in a circular plot ten to twelve inches thick. After this, a number of horses were made to tramp around in it and thoroughly mix it. The mixing process completed, it was cut into blocks and dried in the sun. This fuel, when properly prepared, produced intense heat and was very well adapted for use in the stoves.
Cooking utensils were few and simple: a tripod, a few iron or copper kettles, and a small assortment of dishes being sufficient for the preparation of the meals, which consisted mostly of one course, except on feast days, when more elaborate meals were prepared.
Like everything else, the furniture of the house was of the simplest: wooden bedsteads, all home-made of plain boards, mattresses filled with straw or hay, tables made of rough lumber, and benches from four to eight feet long, which took the place of chairs.
The interior walls were frequently whitewashed and the entire house kept neat and clean, the women taking a special pride in having an attractive, well-kept home.
The clothing of the early settlers was very plain, most of it being made at home by hand, as they were unacquainted with sewing machines. Coming from a land of long, severe winters, they were prepared to meet similar conditions here. All brought with them heavy fur-lined overcoats, felt boots, and long topped boots, i.e., boots with shafts, into which the trousers were stuck. These latter were worn the year around. Especially peculiar were the large sheepskin coats, woven with the fur on the inside. The upper part to the waist was close-fitting, and the lower part was attached at the waist in folds after the manner of a skirt, causing it to spread below. As headgear, the newcomer wore a cap (carduse), somewhat similar to the cap worn by the American boy today, but which at the time was somewhat of a novelty and attracted quite a bit of attention. The women and girls continued to dress as they did in Russia. They wore neither hats nor bonnets, but were contented with small, black shawls which they frequently embroidered with flower designs in colored silk. On their arrival in America, the men wore their hair Iong, i.e., from the crown to the neck. This custom has gradually disappeared.
Though originally a large percentage of the immigrants who settled on the Volga were artisans, all were compelled by circumstances to devote themselves to agriculture. In addition to cereals, they also cultivated tobacco and raised cattle. Of those who later came to America, practically all were farmers, and as a general rule all remained true to their calling here in Ellis County.
Some few of the settlers brought with them small quantities of seed - spring wheat, tobacco and watermelons. Spring wheat, which was successfully cultivated in Russia, did not thrive well here, and after a few experiments was discarded and only winter wheat sown. In the early days tobacco was extensively cultivated. At present it is still planted but only in small quantities. Watermelons thrive well, and are quite generally cultivated for home use. The cultivation of other vegetables, however, as well as of cattle, is carried on only on a very small scale. Maize and Kafir corn are raised as food for the cattle.
On their first arrival in Ellis County, lack of resources prevented the settlers from doing much farming, and in order to make a living they hired themselves out as laborers. The English colonists, who in 1873 founded Victoria, gave employment to a number, while the majority found work on the railroad. With the money they earned by their labor, they bought land and stock, and as conditions allowed devoted themselves exclusively to the development of their farms, for them the most congenial kind of work.
Owing to their seclusion, the settlers in Russia retained their native tongue, German, and few ever acquired a thorough knowledge of the Russian language. The settlers in Ellis County still speak German, and even today there are but few children in the settlements who cannot speak it. This heritage is still fostered at home, and, to some extent, in the parish schools. The spoken German closely resembles that spoken in the Palatinate and in Bavaria. Some varieties in the language of the different villages still remain, such as, e.g., the pronunciation of e as ä, â, õ í in such words as "Weizen," "Stehen," etc. One peculiarity is that words are still employed in a sense that has grown obsolete, as "bloede." in the sense of timid.
As a class, the people are very conservative, and for a long time clung tenaciously to a number of peculiar customs which only the last few years have tended to root out. In part these customs were connected with the various ecclesiastical festivals. Thus, on Christmas Eve, a lady dressed in white, with a girdle of blue and face veiled, would appear in each house as the herald of the "Christ Kindlein" (Christ Child). The first sign of her approach was the tinkling of a small bell, followed by a knock at the door. Entering she saluted all with the greeting: "Gelobt sei Jesus Christus" (Praised be Jesus Christ). Next calling for the youngest child, she would recite some short prayer as evidence of diligence in this regard, and would then reward it with gifts. The older children were then summoned and not infrequently mildly chastised for various faults committed, after which they too received presents. Finally, a quantity of nuts were thrown into the air and as the children scrambled for them the white-robed herald departed.
In Catherine it was customary for each child to call upon his godparents on Christmas and Faster and offer them the greetings of the season. As a reward for his thoughtfulness he received a quantity of sweets which he carried away in a white cloth.
On New Year's Day the children called upon their relatives and friends and wished them a Happy New Year, always employing the same formula: "Ich wünsche Euch ein glückseliges Neujahr, langes Leben, Gesundheit, Friede und Enigkeit, nach dem Tode die ewige Glückseligkeit." (I wish you a happy New Year, long life, health, peace and unity, and after death eternal happiness.) For this greeting the children were rewarded with sweets.
In Holy Week the Church bells are silent from Holy Thursday till Saturday. During this time it was customary for the altar boys to go through the village with wooden clappers to announce the time of divine service and of the Angelus. After Mass on Holy Saturday, they went from house to house collecting eggs as their reward for services rendered.
A great number of marriage customs prevailed in the colonies, differing considerably in the various villages. Thus, at Schoenchen and several of the other settlements, oral invitations to the wedding were served by two men deputed by the fathers of the bridal couple. These men carried canes to which a ribbon was attached, and walked through the colony inviting the chosen guests, using for this purpose a special formula. At Catherine, however, written invitations were always sent out, and the oral form dispensed with.
The evening before a wedding, known as polterabend (rachet eve), was given over to music, dancing and general merry making. Before going to church on the wedding day the bridal couple knelt on a cloth spread on the floor, facing each other and with hands joined, and received the blessing of their parents and of all the relatives present.
At the dinner which followed the wedding the bridal couple, though seated at table, did not partake of food with the guests, but later on took their meal alone in another room. While at table, the bride was robbed of one shoe, which had to be redeemed with money by the best man. After the festive meal, dancing was begun by the young husband and wife and the marriage witnesses. During the dance presents were pinned to the bride's dress.
The settlers are great card players, frequently coming together on an afternoon or evening to play Durack, Kopfbauer and Solo, all specific Russian games.
In Russia each settler received as his portion an area of land in keeping with the number of male members of his family, females being disregarded. A remnant of this custom is to be found in Ellis County today. Farms are generally divided among the boys of the family, while a present in the manner of a dowry is the usual portion of the girls.
The status of woman is to all purposes that of a "Hausfrau," the home being the sphere of her activity. In the early days she also lent a hand in the harvest fields. The large family is proverbial. among the settlers and from every standpoint their family life is pure, divorce and illegitimates being practically unknown.
The details given above portray but in part the character and activity of the settlers. Various interests, already in the early years, and even more so at present, drew many from the settlements to other towns. The largest contingent is at Hays, whose Catholic congregation has several hundred German-Russian families among its members. A goodly number also moved to Ellis and Walker in Ellis County, and to Gorham in Russell County.
The nuclei of several new settlements have been formed by the erection of churches at Emmeram, Antonino, Hyacinth, Yocemento, Vincent, Severin and a number of other convenient points.
The story of the quiet and unassuming conquest of the one time desert by the German-Russian immigrants is one of the brightest pages of the history of Kansas. Great were the difficulties they had, and still have, to contend with; but they are being met as they come, by the never-failing courage of the settlers.
Transcribed from The Golden Jubilee of German-Russian Settlements of Ellis and Rush Counties, Kansas, August 31, September 1 and 2, 1926
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